Pooja Sonavane is 26 years old and has two children—four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. From December 15, Pooja has been travelling with her children and husband, and has covered a distance of about 700 kilometre. She is one of the many labourers who travel to help farmers cut sugarcane.
Maharashtra, the second largest sugar-producing state in the country after Uttar Pradesh, witnesses many such labourers covering long distances in this season every year. These labourers come from mainly backward districts of Marathwada and North Maharashtra. According to the government data, almost six lakh cutters migrate to Western Maharashtra, North Maharashtra and even North Karnataka, looking for work. They have to cope with a number of difficulties.
Pooja’s four-year-old daughter is ill. When NewsClick spoke with her, Pooja was travelling along with her toli (group) from Ghodegaon in Pune district to Manchar for some cutting work. Even though her child is sick, Pooja has no other option but to go to work in the fields.
“We do take money from farmers. They too are dependent on us. Once the cane is ready to cut, farmers want to do it immediately because they want to have more weight of the cane when they send it to the mills. So, there is pressure on us to finish the job quickly. Then, we have to ignore illnesses of our children,” said Pooja.
This work will barely fetch Pooja enough money. A worker, his wife and one more person with a bullock cart will earn close to Rs 70,000-80,000 every season. They will have to carry the cane after cutting it to the mills as well. If the cutters don’t have a bullock cart, then they will get around Rs 30,000 for the entire season. This amounts to Rs 5,000-7,000 per person each month.
Despite inadequate remuneration, cutters travel for work each year. They mostly come from the areas where there is negligible irrigation or they don’t have any land to cultivate. These tolis include workers who are minimum land holders, but after the monsoons, they don’t have any work to do.
Kacharu Pohaane is from Dhule's Malegaon teshil and is now cutting canes in Purandar teshil of Pune district. He left his home about two months ago. This year, he had to come to work without his wife. “Contractor has assured me a good pay of Rs 25,000. If I get that money on time, I will be able to pay for the medicines of my wife,” said Kacharu.
A lot has been written about these cutters’ tolis and the miserable conditions they have to put up with to be able to earn bare minimum. But not much has been done to help them. These groups are usually called by contractors who are paid by the mills.
It is compulsory for the cooperative as well as private mills to provide basic medical facilities to the cutters in their zones. So, medical camps are reportedly organised on regular basis. But they do not get any other benefits, as they are unorganised.
In the past 20 years, sugarcane cutters have received promises from many political parties. The formation of exclusive statutory body is one of them. Erstwhile BJP government, too, had made an announcement to this effect, but nothing could be materialised. Similar promise now has been made by the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government. It has said that all the sugarcane cutters, even those who go to Karnataka in search of work but originally are from Maharashtra, will be accommodated under this body.
“I am 53 yeas old. I have been listening to all these promises since I was in my twenties and had started coming to work on my own. I don’t know whether the next generation of cutters will get to see such a body,” commented Kacharu.